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Orioles still in playoff race with favorable home stretch ahead

Though the Orioles were disappointed in the results of their just-completed West Coast trip, they returned to Baltimore still very much in the thick of the wild-card race.

Little has sorted itself out since the Orioles traveled across the country. They left home 2½ games out of the American League's second wild-card spot and despite a 4-6 road trip, they return just three games out.

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The Orioles activated utility man Ryan Flaherty from the 60-day DL and outrighted infielder Ruben Tejada

Now they will begin a key stretch of their schedule that could end up defining their season, though initially they will have the benefit of playing 16 of their next 19 games at Camden Yards.

"We're headed back to Baltimore," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said after the team's 7-6 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday afternoon. "It's been a long trip. We have a chance to roll the dice the last six weeks and that's what we hope to do — compete with a chance to play in October. We're still engaged in it."

The Orioles' next nine home games will be against the same teams they struggled against out west, starting with the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics on their upcoming six-game homestand. After a brief three-game series in Boston, the Orioles (59-62) host the Mariners, who they just dropped two of three against at Safeco Field.

"Yeah, this definitely was a long road trip, a tough road trip, and we're definitely excited to be [going] home where we're comfortable," outfielder Craig Gentry said after Wednesday's loss. "We'll have an off day tomorrow and hopefully we can finish out this thing strong."

With the standings where they are, it will be important to play well, especially since both the Angels and Mariners sit ahead of the Orioles in the wild-card race. This will be the Orioles' only remaining opportunity to gain head-to-head ground on them.

The road trip is "over with and got to get ready because we're getting these same teams coming in here next week and we have to take care of business," catcher Caleb Joseph said. "We can't let those games slip away like we did this past week."

The Orioles have played well at home this season, posting a 35-23 record at Camden Yards, though they are just 2-2-1 in home series since the break, going 10-7 over that span.

"On paper, if you look at home records [it should be an advantage], but I don't think the Angels care," Showalter said. "I don't think that Oakland cares. What may be perceived as a bad matchup or something with pitching going in, I can't tell you how many times … it's so easy to get ambushed up here."

This stretch will carry the Orioles into September when rosters expand to give Showalter more pieces to use. The Orioles have traditionally played well in the season's final weeks over the past five years. Last year, the Orioles were 17-12 after Sept. 1 to earn the AL's final playoff spot.

The Orioles might need to choose whether to option Joey Rickard or designate Craig Gentry for assignment to clear space for Anthony Santander.

As usual, the playoff race goes into the season's final quarter extremely crowded, with seven teams going into Thursday within 3½ games of the Angels, who hold the second wild-card spot. And of those teams, the Orioles were one of four with a losing record.

By comparison, at the same point in the season last year — the 121-game mark — the Orioles held possession of the second wild-card spot, leading by two games and were 13 games over .500. In 2016, the Orioles won the AL's final playoff spot by 2½ games, though they clinched with a win on the final day of the regular season.

"It seems like every year [the race is bunched], and then someone takes off," Showalter said. "It's a big snowball time of the year. That's probably what's been surprising. Sometimes teams, mentally it becomes a challenge because of the wear and tear on the emotional and mental side of the game to stay engaged."

Despite an inconsistent season in which the Orioles have been below .500 for most of the past two months, they will play a large role in deciding whether they make the playoffs. Thirty-six of their final 41 games will come against either AL division leaders or teams competing for wild-card spots. The only five games remaining that don't qualify are next week's home series against Athletics and a pair of interleague road games at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"So you're always hoping you get on that positive roll," Showalter said. "But at this level, there's a small separator. There are some things that can snowball either way. We've got what about six weeks left? So we'll see."

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Let the wild-card chase commence

With 41 games remaining, the Orioles have only five against teams essentially eliminated from playoff contention. The Orioles host the last-place Oakland Athletics from Monday through Wednesday, and visit the Pittsburgh Pirates from Sept. 26-27. Here's a look at the division leaders and wild-card contenders the Orioles face the rest of the way.

Angels: home, Friday through Sunday

Red Sox: road, Aug. 25-27; home, Sept. 18-20

Mariners: home, Aug. 28-30

Blue Jays: home, Aug. 31-Sept. 3; road, Sept. 11-13

Yankees: home, Sept. 4-6; road, Sept. 14-17

Indians: road, Sept. 8-10

Rays: home, Sept. 21-24; road, Sept. 29-Oct. 1

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

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